The Who: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970

Doug Collette By

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The Who
Live at The Isle of Wight Festival 1970
Eagle Vision

Just by virtue of the combustible dynamics of their personalities, The Who on stage were an improvisational unit of the highest order, apt as easily to implode as explode. At the time of their appearance at The Isle of Wight Festival in August of 1970, The Who were at the peak of their powers as a performing act. Having toured behind heir rock opera Tommy for over a year at this point, to increasingly louder acclaim and public recognition—the band had played a run at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York the previous month—the quartet knew the material thoroughly and had honed the dynamics of their music in tune with their stage presence to become the most exciting rock and roll act in the world at the time.

And the theatrics of The Who were based on the energy and contrast of the four individuals in the group. If this audio and video recording doesn't quite capture all the intensity and vibrancy of the group's early morning performance at the English festival, it's really no fault of the original recording, comparatively primitive as it is, or even the digital restoration of both sound and video. The Who were simply too much to capture ad translate onto any configuration, then or now.

Certainly there's much to praise in the capture and editing of this performance, the entirety of the band's show. Close-ups of the group alternate in time with the music, particularly during the segments from Tommy and while you might wish for fewer shots of guitarist/singer Pete Townshend, it's only natural he comprise so much footage as the focal point of the group artistically, notwithstanding the windmilling arms, duckwalks and legs akimbo leaping about the stage.

The bulk of the footage of the band is take from stage right, past Townshend and behind Moon, which affords some, but not all, the best vista from which to witness the huge crowd estimated at close to 600,000. As the end of Tommy approaches, and floodlights flash from behind the band, shots of the entire band on stage appear and you have to wish more such angles were used during the rest of the editing, throughout the film, for it's the contrast of activity within The Who as they performed that was the real source of the excitement.

The sound of the band too lent more than a little to the overall impact of witnessing them play, and the audio quality is superior here, overseen by Townshend himself and Jon Astley who mixed the remastered versions of The Who cd's over last few years. Once touted as the loudest rock band in the world, it's debatable whether anyone can play this DVD at the optimum decibel level, which is no doubt why this film was shown in selected theatres upon its release. There's also the question of the sequencing of the material itself, which is not presented exactly as rendered by the band; in their stage presentations, older material such as "Can't Explain was juxtaposed with new (at the time) Townshend originals such as "Water, in a roughly half hour precursor to the selections from the rock opera, while another shorter clutch of tunes like "Magic Bus closed the show.

While it made some sense on the deluxe cd version of Live At Leeds to separate the Tommy performance eon its own disc, for reasons of continuity and playing time, with the playing time available on the DVD, there's no real need to td that, except perhaps to make it simpler to play this truncated Tommy. The interview with townshend added as a bonus(along with a 5.1 mix) finds him, in turn, bitter, childlike, insightful and good humored as he discusses, with the producer and director of this film Murray Lerner, the thought process behind The Who in general, songwriting in particular and the spiritual aspects of performance.

His comments on cultural values now and in comparison to the late Sixties are illuminating in a limited way, but in general this question and answer might well have been limited exclusively to discussion of the Isle of Wight Festival itself: mention of violence political sabotage etc while not particularly fascinating is preferable to the kind of philosophizing Townshend's always been good at but again demonstrates why rockers, balding aging ones in particular, should never indulge in such pontificating.

Not that the sanctimony would be any more palatable coming from the skinny-as-a- rail Pete, clad in the white jumpsuit with the scraggly beard, but his between tune repartee during the performance, self-deprecating as it is, is at least entertaining and humorous, not one or the other. Plus it's a mercifully short in its interruption of a performance, that, even if not captured in its full physical impact, is powerful enough to make you wish you'd seen The Who(or longingly recall seeing them). The often ragged, borderline violence of their sage presence may not be the stuff of a conventional jam session, but like so much of what this band did, redefined the musical terms of the time.


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